Bloomington, Ind. — After a long night of partying, a 20-year-old Indiana University sophomore declines a friend's plea to sleep it off at his place in the 5 North Townhomes. She wants to get back to her apartment, so she walks away, heading east along 11th Street.
Barefoot, intoxicated and alone, she takes about 100 steps to College Avenue and turns south, toward her apartment at Smallwood Plaza just 2 1/2 blocks away.
But Lauren Spierer never made it there. She vanished in a mystery that — 10 years later — continues to baffle investigators and haunt her family.
Someone surely knows the fate of Spierer, who was last reported walking through downtown Bloomington at about 4:30 a.m. on June 3, 2011. People don’t just disappear into thin air. And not without a word for 10 years.
But what happened to her?
A decade later, the assumption is as logical as it is painful: Spierer is dead. It's a likelihood her family has begrudgingly accepted. But like so many other questions swirling around her disappearance — and with no body, no motive and little else to aid investigators — even that remains part of the mystery.
Lauren Spierer: Retracing the missing girl's final hours
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
What is known is how Spierer spent the last few hours before she vanished.
That timeline is pieced together from the accounts of friends and others who encountered Spierer, telephone records, statements by police, court documents, reports from private investigators hired by her family, and security camera images.
It unfolds like many other nights in a college town. Young people bouncing from house parties to bars to other parties. Some drinking; others using drugs. People pairing off. Confrontations. And, ultimately, everyone heading home to sleep it off and get ready to do it all over again.
Typical — if sometimes troubling — stuff in a world where young people often feel invincible and it's never too hard to find a party.
Final 4 hours spent in 4 blocks
A sophomore from New York studying fashion merchandising, Spierer's last-known activities spanned about four hours in a roughly four-by-two block area north of the downtown square.
And while she had a long-time boyfriend in Bloomington, those final hours were largely spent with four other young men: Jay Rosenbaum was an old friend she'd met at a summer camp in Pennsylvania before coming to IU — the same camp where she met her boyfriend, Jesse Wolff; David Rohn, who lived in her apartment building; and Mike Beth and Corey Rossman, friends of Rosenbaum's who Spierer met the weekend before while partying and camping at the Indianapolis 500.
The four young men would become central to the official-but-hazy account of Spierer's activities in the early morning hours of June 3, 2011. They would also figure prominently in the waves of speculation about what happened to her.
But Beth, Rohn, Rosenbaum and Rossman were never identified by police as suspects or criminally charged in Spierer's disappearance.
Spierer's parents, who declined a USA TODAY Network interview request, did sue Beth, Rosenbaum and Rossman for failing to protect their daughter. A federal judge dismissed the case.
"Although the court has great sympathy for the Spierers," the judge said, "they have failed to meet their burden of showing" the men had any legal duty to care for her.
The trail of Spierer's final hours begins about 12:30 a.m. on June 3, 2011, when a security camera at Smallwood Plaza apartments captured her walking in the hallway. In the fuzzy image, she is wearing a short-sleeved white blouse and black leggings with silver zippers at the ankle. Despite its low quality, the picture also captures Spierer flashing the smile that would be seen again and again after her disappearance on posters, billboards and news accounts around the world.
At the time, though, the security image was something far less ominous than the centerpiece of a missing person poster: It was a fleeting record of a happy young college woman headed out for a night of fun. The photo shows Spierer as she was preparing to leave Smallwood in the 400 block of College Avenue after drinking wine with friends watching a 2011 NBA Finals game between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. During the game, Rosenbaum had texted twice, urging her to come to a party at his townhouse a few blocks away.
It was pleasant, if a little humid, as Thursday rolled into Friday in the student-centric district where bars stay open to 3 a.m. and the partying often ends much later. The sky was clear with just the slightest sliver of a new moon beyond the glow of the street lights as Spierer headed to Rosenbaum's party at 5 North Townhomes. She was accompanied on the roughly three-block walk by Rohn.
Reports of alcohol and drug use
Like many others at the party, Spierer was drinking. Rosenbaum would later recall she appeared intoxicated. He told investigators that either Spierer or Rohn told him she had crushed up and snorted Klonopin, a drug used to treat seizures and panic attacks, and he also suspected she'd used cocaine before arriving at the party.
Rossman was there, too. He'd told friends he hoped to hook up with Spierer.
Not long after arriving at Rosenbaum's, with the party winding down, Rossman and Spierer and at least one other friend went to Rossman's townhouse in the same brick building on 11th Street between Morton Street and College Avenue. Beth, Rosenbaum and a few others soon followed as the party shifted to the townhouse shared by Beth and Rossman.
Beth would later say Spierer appeared extremely intoxicated as Rossman encouraged her to join him in a trip to Kilroy's Sports Bar, a popular downtown haunt for college students and locals. Rossman told Beth, according to court documents, "I want to have three more drinks at the bar and then I'll be feeling good."
So, sometime around 1:30 a.m., Rossman and Spierer left the 5 North Townhomes and walked about four blocks south to Kilroy's. They arrived around 1:46 a.m. A witness who saw the pair enter the bar noted Spierer had trouble standing and Rossman had to help her walk.
Even though she was only 20 — not old enough to legally drink in Indiana — Spierer had a fake ID. She and the 21-year-old Rossman spent about 40 minutes at Kilroy's. During that time, Rossman purchased several drinks for himself and Spierer. At some point, they settled in the bar's "beach" area, where fake palm trees towered over a floor covered in sand. Spierer took off her shoes.
Spierer and Rossman left Kilroy's at 2:27 a.m., and headed back toward her apartment a block and a half away. But she left behind her shoes and cell phone.
The pair arrived at Smallwood, a high-end complex popular among IU students from the East Coast, at 2:30 a.m. They took an elevator to the fifth floor where Spierer lived. But they never made it to her apartment.
Confrontation turns violent
After getting off the elevator, Rossman was confronted by several young men. Spierer was, according to witness accounts cited in her parent's lawsuit, "distressed, incoherent and nonresponsive." The others were upset Rossman was not assisting her.
"Are you OK?" one of the young men asked her.
"She's OK, I got it," Rossman is said to have replied.
Then another one of the men stepped in with advice.
"Hey, dude," he said, "you'd better take her to her room."
Rossman cursed at him and the confrontation turned physical. Rossman was hit in the head and fell to the floor. The fight left him with a split lip and, according to his attorney, a loss of memory.
For whatever reason, instead of going on to her apartment on the fifth floor, Spierer and Rossman left Smallwood at 2:42 a.m. Video from the lobby shows Spierer stumbling after getting out of the elevator and Rossman helping her back to her feet.
About a block away, an unsteady Spierer stopped to rest on some stairs. She fell backward, slamming her head against a concrete step. The fall caught the attention of a passing young woman, who asked if Spierer needed help.
"She's OK," Rossman again replied. "I'll take care of it."
The last independent evidence
They started back toward Rossman's townhouse and Spierer fell again. She made no effort to break the fall and her face smacked the ground. Hard. She got up, but a few steps later, fell again.
They cut through a north-south alley off of 10th Street on their way to Rossman's place at 5 North Townhomes. The alley between apartment buildings was narrow and steep as it traversed the sudden incline to 11th Street. And given their reported conditions, it would likely have been a difficult trudge to the top of the hill.
A security camera in the alley captured images of the pair at 2:48 a.m. They were about half way between 10th and 11th streets. Three minutes later, another camera shows them leaving the alley. Those images would be the last photographic evidence in the case. From there, the only known accounts of the final 90 minutes before Spierer disappeared came from Rossman, Beth and Rosenbaum.
Along the way, Spierer dropped her keys and a small clutch purse. They were found a few hours later by a person going to work.
"Spierer was so intoxicated," her parents' lawsuit said, that Rossman was carrying her "slung across his back" as they approached the row of townhouses on 11th Street where they had connected at Rosenbaum's party a few hours earlier.
Back at 5 North Townhomes
Sometime around 3:30 a.m., Beth said he returned to his townhouse and found Rossman and Spierer. Both appeared to be in bad shape. Rossman had vomited and Beth helped get him into bed. Then he urged Spierer to crash on their couch.
But Spierer — now visibly intoxicated, barefoot and without her phone, keys and purse — reportedly insisted on returning to her apartment. So Beth, who'd just met Spierer days earlier at the Indianapolis 500, called her long-time friend Rosenbaum. After the call, Beth took her to Rosenbaum's neighboring townhouse.
Rosenbaum was concerned about Spierer, who had "a very noticeable bruise under her eye," according to a private investigator's summary of an interview with Rosenbaum.
"He asked her what happened," the investigator wrote, "and she responded, 'I don't know.'"
Beth again urged Spierer to call it a night and sleep on Rosenbaum's couch. She sat down and seemed agreeable to the idea. So Beth headed back to his townhouse. Spierer remained at Rosenbaum's for about 30 more minutes.
Rosenbaum told the investigator Spierer used his phone to make two calls during that time. One to Rohn, the other to another male friend who had been with her in the group watching the NBA game. Neither answered, and she didn't leave messages. That's when Spierer decided to go back to her apartment.
He made one last plea for her to stay, Rosenbaum said, but Spierer again declined.
Rosenbaum said he watched Spierer leave. She was walking east toward College Avenue, where she would turn south for the final 2 1/2 blocks to Smallwood. He is the last known person to see Spierer.
That was about 4:30 a.m., police said — about four hours after Spierer and Rohn first arrived at Rosenbaum's party.
The intersection of 11th Street and College Avenue is where the story of Spierer's night of partying ends and the mystery of her disappearance begins. Spierer never returned to Smallwood, now called The Avenue on College. She didn't even make it one block south to 10th Street, where a security camera revealed no images of her around that time.
One story ends, a new mystery begins
There are a lot of theories about what happened. Some are based on legitimate information or logical assumptions; others built on little more than wild speculation and innuendo. A quick Google search reveals the extent of the possibilities raised by armchair detectives — and how, even a decade later, Spierer's disappearance continues to captivate people across the U.S. and beyond.
Did she overdose on drugs? Was she a victim of a man convicted of killing an IU student in 2015? Did a motorcycle gang take her hostage? Was she hit by a drunk driver who collected her body and later dumped it?
The first seemingly strong lead emerged June 15, 2011, when Bloomington police released images from security cameras showing a white pickup truck traveling in the area where Spierer was last seen. The images were captured within 10 minutes of when she went missing and spurred hundreds of new tips along with more speculation and theories.
But five days later, police announced the white truck from the video images was not tied to the case. It had been located and scoured for evidence. Nothing related to the investigation was found. The owner explained he'd been in the area that morning to pick up a worker for his business.
The potential role of drugs in the case came out publicly in 2014 following an anniversary story in which Spierer's parents raised concerns about Rosenbaum, Rossman and Spierer's then-boyfriend Wolff. Responding to the story, Wolff's mother blamed her death on drugs.
"This poor little girl is not with us today," Nadine Wolff said in an interview, "because of her drug abuse." That jibes with a theory popular on Reddit and other internet sites: Spierer, who had a heart condition, overdosed or died from a medical complication and whoever was with her panicked and dumped her body to avoid culpability in her death.
Rosenbaum, Rosman and Wolff all reportedly passed lie detector tests.
New searches and possible suspects
In January 2016, investigators from the Bloomington Police Department and federal agents searched the Martinsville property owned by the family of Justin Wagers in connection with the Spierer investigation. His attorney denied Wagers, a registered sex offender, had any knowledge of Spierer.
Wagers, then 35, was being held in another case, and an examination of his past revealed two allegations of violence against women and a pattern of exposing himself to women and children, according to court documents. Those allegations spanned at least nine cases across four Central Indiana counties, and he'd already admitted to charges of public indecency in six of the incidents.
A reporter at the scene of the search said a two-door, white Dodge Dakota Sport truck with front-end damage and a blue camper shell was removed from the property. But investigators remained mum about what they were looking for and what, if anything, they found. A judge later sealed records related to the search warrant and said they will not be made public unless charges are filed in the case.
Five months later, former FBI agent Brad Garrett, who worked with private investigators hired by Spierer's parents, said in preview story about a 2016 episode of ABC's 20/20 called "Looking for Lauren" that he'd chased down a number of promising leads. They included tips about an Indianapolis drug dealer and the Sons of Silence motorcycle gang. But Garrett said his focus had returned to the overdose theory and people Spierer was with that night.
In 2017 a new suspect came into the picture. Brown County prosecutor Ted Adams said he believed Daniel Messel, who he'd convicted of murder in the 2015 slaying of IU student Hannah Wilson, may also be responsible for Spierer's disappearance.
Messel's name had previously come up in connection with several incidents in which college-age women reported sexual incidents and close calls with a suspicious man who trolled the college bar scene in Bloomington. Adams, who is not connected to the Spierer investigation, said he identified a four-by-five-block "zone of danger" where he believes Messel targeted women who were vulnerable, intoxicated and alone.
“Those are the things," the prosecutor said, "(Messel) looked for.”
Adams' danger zone included the area where Spierer disappeared. And in a chilling twist, Wilson was last seen outside Kilroy's at 12:45 a.m. on April 4, 2015. Her body was found hours later in Brown County.
Bloomington Police Department officials, who have remained tight-lipped throughout the Spierer investigation, have not said whether Messel is a suspect in the case.
Ten years after Spierer vanished, only memories and questions remain. No body. No answers. No resolution to a crime that has mystified a small army of law enforcement and private investigators. No closure for Spierer's grieving family and friends.
Frozen in time, surrounded by what ifs
Spierer would have turned 30 on Jan. 17. Who knows what life would have held for her? She may have been a wife. Perhaps a mother. Maybe even a rising star in the world of fashion.
But the events of June 3, 2011, slammed the door on Spierer's future. She’s destined to be remembered not for what she became, but the lingering question: What became of her?
Spierer, like others who die young, is now frozen in time: Forever the attractive, fun-loving young woman in the candid images that adorned posters, T-shirts, billboards and social media posts seeking information about her disappearance. A petite blue-eyed blonde with a radiant smile and the whole world in front of her.
Reporting from IndyStar archives, Herald-Times and lohud.com contributed to this story.